After spending most of the season focused on what one might loosely call “magic” – a heady cocktail of Shinto and Chinese mythology mixed with shounen anime canon – Ushio and Tora takes a somewhat surprising turn to close out it’s “first season” (there will be one more cour in the Spring – which is starting to look loaded). Yes, it’s the turn of science to take center stage – but the overall relentless narrative drive and stellar pacing don’t skip a beat.
After a week in which Mayuko took her spotlight dance, it’s Asuko’s turn this time – and I suppose if you’re not a fan of the opposites attract theory, you might feel she’s the better match for Ushio. She certainly superficially resembles him more both physically and tempearmentally – she’s brusque, crude and tough as old leather. She shares his sense of justice and concern for the defenseless, too, though I still can’t get past her classic tsundere personality enough to really like her. But this might have been the episode that best showed off her good side.
The villains to close out the first season are H.A.M.M.R. (Head Anti Metamorphose Measure Research – talk about when bad things happen to good words). They’re another group theoretically opposed to Hakumen no Mono who’re unwittingly (presumably) doing his bidding. The Japanese government official working with the Kouhamei Sect (actually Atsuzawa Kyouji – in UshiTora minor characters always come back) notes that they’ve “gone rogue”, and perhaps that’s all it is – they’re just arrogant and stupid, and unwilling to invest the hard work involved in actually cooperating to defeat Hakumen. But whether their evil is inadvertent or not, they’re still serving its cause.
The boffins at HAMMR (all those periods are too much work) are pretty much your classic idiot scientists, short-sighted and cocky and moral relativists to the core. They kidnap Ushio using tranquilizer darts, then Tora and Asuko (though he lets it happen) in the name of measuring their “Kirlian levels” (in RL terms, this is basically the aura). They’re also experimenting on immobilized youkai, including Murase Ayumu’s child-like Baldanders (Baldanders are creatures of Germnic mythology, so HAMMR really gets around), which royally pisses off the maternally protective Asuko.
Once things start to turn for the worse here, they escalate pretty quickly. Having harvested a bit of Hakumen no Mono’s tissue from the point of the Beast Spear the scientists manage to effectively culture a piece of him (I love how all the incarnations of Hakumen always feature those terrifying eyes) which – naturally – runs amok. Bal-chan gets himself impaled and absorbed saving Asuko Onee-chan, and the HAMMR-heads seem too dimwitted to realize that instead of being ecstatic about their scientific breakthrough they should be worried about their imminent death.
There are two saving graces here. First, Tora is Asuko’s ace-in-the-hole (we certainly learn more about his fur’s miraculous ability than ever before). And second, that Ushio’s integrity is absolute – he’s true to his ideal of saving everyone he can, no matter how despicable their behavior may be. Ushio & Tora is no less than a struggle of compassion and decency against short-sighted arrogance and abject, virulent evil. Ushio is a rock of steadfast goodness in a sea of cruelty – a rock supported by the likes of Asuko’s red-hot righteous indignation and Mayuko’s white-cool kindness and compassion.
That being said, if there’s a dramatic character journey in this series I think it’s Tora’s more than Ushio’s. He’s the one who changes and grows the most through his relationships, most especially with Ushio and Mayuko. When he arrives at the end of this ep it’s incredibly rousing, and he really does play the role of a white knight – loyalty has changed him in ways very dramatic, and there can be no doubt now on whose side he fights. Givin the big journey to someone other than the protagonist is an unorthodox bit of storytelling inside a classic shounen, but it’s one of my favorite elements of this outstanding series.